Posts Tagged ‘policing’

What role does “character” really play anymore and what is its relationship to good policing? In our highly cynical, ultra-hip, post-modern society, the very word seems little more than a throwback to another era.  Modern technologies that monitor, document, and report our every move distances us ever further from the idea that “character” is an important concept to develop internally, even in criminal justice work.


When it comes to policing, data gathered by automated logs, dash cams, CCTV systems, body cameras, and other technological devices are often held out as a proxy for what are arguably internal processes alone. We can’t monitor a person’s thoughts or beliefs in real-time (yet), but we can monitor outward behaviors that make it easier for us to differentiate those we perceive as having character from those who we believe lack it.

And isn’t that enough? Do we really care about a police officer’s actual inner character as long as he or she lives up to the legal, ethical, and moral standards we expect?


Policing in the U.S. can be quite a challenging and complex proposition, which may be why too many cops seem to have become confused about their role in society and what we expect of them as law enforcement officers. They do, of course, get conflicting messages from us much of the time, not to mention the influence of their own police subculture that holds strong sway over them as a group.

Image courtesy of franky242 /

Image courtesy of franky242 /

In one moment, society’s message is “be strong, be tough, kick ass, and never let the bad guys win.” In the next, it’s “be kind, gentle, and careful, no matter what.”

Police subculture itself typically values the former and minimizes the latter, while also promoting a certain brand of concrete, black and white thinking that can make seeing the subtleties of working with people very difficult.

I imagine, though – somewhere in all of that polarizing confusion – a spacious middle ground where strong, caring, smart, tough cops diligently enforce the law while also paying close attention to civil liberties and the rights of citizens to be free from abusive behavior by representatives of their own government.

Call me naive, but I think that is an entirely reasonable and achievable goal. And the cop in the below video is one example of what I’m talking about.

Cop Plays Catch with Lonely Neighborhood Kid

It can be as simple as getting out of the squad car and building quality relationships with community members. Let’s deliver that message to police everywhere on a consistent basis. We want cops to be in touch with their humanity, to be connected to the people in their community, and to genuinely care about the impacts – both positive and negative – that they’re having on society as a whole.

What are you willing to do to help cops get it right?

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This has literally been one of the worst weeks, ever. Not the worst, mind you, but bad enough to make it into my personal top five of all time. The specific reasons for that are going to have to remain a mystery for most of you, but trust me when I say I’m looking forward to a nice, quiet weekend.

Image courtesy of FelixCo, Inc. /

Image courtesy of FelixCo, Inc. /

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I was reminded once again that I have a great family, wonderful friends, amazing students, and that I just have a lot of support overall. Thanks to all of you.

Another bright spot from the week was the short film below (NSFW – language), which I found incredibly funny and oddly uplifting somehow, despite the subject matter. It was produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and was an official selection at Sundance 2014.

It tells the tale of a Connecticut teacher’s battle to get the police interested in simply helping him recover his stolen car – even after he had located it.

The real heart of the story, though, is the indifferent attitude of some modern institutions to the very problems the institutions themselves were originally created to solve. That isn’t a very funny idea, but the film itself has a humorous take on it all.


Have a safe weekend!

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At first I was disappointed that this week’s episode of This American Life was a rebroadcast from 2010. I’m glad I listened anyway, though, because it was an excellent podcast about people who refused to remain silent, even when it was in their best interest to simply shutup.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden /

Image courtesy of Simon Howden /

Of the two stories, the most riveting was about Adrian Schoolcraft, a former New York City police officer who secretly recorded his conversations with fellow officers and police administrators for nearly a year and a half back in 2008 and 2009.

The aftermath of that — multiple internal affairs investigations, a book about corruption in the NYPD based on the recordings, and Schoolcraft himself being thrown into a mental hospital by a deputy chief to silence him — is incredibly compelling.

The tapes also figured prominently in the recent court decision declaring the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices to be unconstitutional.

Graham Rayman wrote about the tapes and their content in a series of articles for the Village Voice back in 2010:

They reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don’t make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints.

As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high “activity”—including stop-and-frisks—but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.

This pressure was accompanied by paranoia—from the precinct commander to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the line officers—of violating any of the seemingly endless bureaucratic rules and regulations that would bring in outside supervision.

In other words, the tapes reveal the dysfunctional backdrop against which policing occurred in at least one New York City precinct in recent years. Other retired NYPD officers have confirmed the same types of issues in their precincts as well, but the overall scope of any problems in the NYPD isn’t clear.

An unexpected driver (for me, at least) of this reported dysfunction is the use of statistical information to predict and prevent crime. Compstat, the NYPD’s ground breaking approach to so-called “hot spot” policing, turns out to be one of the villains in Schoolcraft’s tale.

Image courtesy of  nokhoog_buchachon /

Image courtesy of nokhoog_buchachon /

What should be a tool to effectively manage police resources and direct them at trouble spots in the city became instead a weapon wielded against police officers to control and monitor their work on the one hand, and as a set of troublesome facts to be manipulated and minimized by administrators on the other.

It’s a troubling reminder that research, technology, and information is rarely neutral in its application. Political interests often trump the truth, and Schoolcraft’s ordeal is a graphic example of that.

Society too often views technology as a saviour. Unfortunately, it can’t replace the human element, at least not in policing.

What are your thoughts? Can we use technology to reduce police corruption (police body cameras?), or is that just yet another blind alley?

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I’m prepping to teach an ethics in criminal justice course next term, so I’ve been brushing up on some rather arcane terminology, such as deontology, consequentialism, and utilitarianism. It’s been a reminder that the academic world and the real world can be miles apart sometimes, especially when it comes to language, which serves to frame up topics in limited, sometimes confusing ways.

Image courtesy of Praisaeng /

Image courtesy of Praisaeng /

While it seems far too simple to describe a complex set of concepts, like ethics, in concrete terms that do little more than establish overly rigid categories, at the same time, simple can be better when it comes to teaching important ideas.

To that end, I’ve been playing around with the table below as a way to contrast behaviors that fall at the extremes of “good” and “bad” when it comes to policing. Even that type of simplification runs up against definitional and relativistic boundaries, though. What is “good?” Who is it that categorizes an outcome as being either good or bad? What role does an ego’s or alter’s perspective play?

We can talk about duty, consequences, and doing what’s right until we’re blue in the face. All of that will be filtered through the student’s own beliefs, personality, and worldview until it takes on qualities that were never intended to be communicated in the first place.

And then we come full circle. We’ve come back around to the attempt at simplifying complex ideas in order to share them in a way that makes sense to learners. Around we go.

What are your thoughts? Can ethics be taught, or is doing so just a futile way to convince ourselves that we’ve met our academic duty to prepare students for a world that often defies our attempts at understanding?

Good Cop

Bad Cop

Authority Recognizes that authority is granted to the officer’s role or office, not to the individual Believes that authority is granted to the officer as an individual for his or her own use
Privacy Respects the right of all individuals to be free from unnecessary governmental intrusions Gathers information about individuals out of personal or prurient interests
Force Cautiously and judiciously uses force to accomplish legitimate goals, regardless of personal feelings of anger or frustration Consistently applies maximum force or more force than necessary out of a sense of frustration, self-righteousness, or a need to punish
Adversity Recognizes that dealing with human beings is challenging and is just part of the policing process Takes confrontation personally as an affront to the officer as an individual
Conflict Seeks to minimize conflict and to maximize the use of skilled human interaction Seeks out or instigates conflict as a way to act out feelings of aggression
Communication Consistently demonstrates willingness and ability to listen and constructively engage with others in the community, regardless of personal feelings Verbally and nonverbally communicates an unwillingness to listen, help, or constructively engage with others
Stress Proactively manages stress in positive ways that minimize anxiety and work problems Fails to manage stress, which leads to increased anxiety on the job, poor decision-making, and abusive behavior
Individual Liberties Fully respects and supports the rights of individuals in all interactions, and views individual rights as an important cornerstone of their work Dismisses the rights of individuals as an unnecessary and illegitimate obstruction to the officer and her or his role
Pseudospeciation Recognizes that police officers are members of society and are expected to treat all individuals with respect and dignity, regardless of personal feelings Sees all non-police as the “other” to be avoided, controlled, and/or punished

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Several months ago, and again this past weekend, I engaged in discussions about drones, how they’re being used, what the potential for abuse might be, and how we go forward from here. The perspectives run the gamut from those who say “no drones, no way,” to those who say “drones okay, but unarmed only,” to others who feel that literally the sky’s the limit.

If you haven’t read it yet, Daniel Suarez’s book, Kill Decision, is not only an excellent story, it’s also a fascinating look at the potential future of drone technology.  The book tends toward the dystopian, but it may not be too far off in terms of its predictions about how drones are ultimately used in the future.

Daniel Suarez’s TED Talk from June 2013 on the topic of lethal autonomous drones

I personally have a complex position on drones. I love technology and feel that drones hold significant promise for so many fields, policing being just one. At the same time, however, the technology is outstripping society’s ability to understand and regulate its use. This would be especially true of the lethal autonomous drones that Suarez warns about in his novel and TED Talk.

The ACLU has also raised concerns related to the privacy implications of drone use by the police. For this reason, some communities, such as Seattle, have declared a moratorium on drone use by police, pending further research. Other jurisdictions are going full steam ahead despite reservations.

But, police aren’t the only ones using drones. The group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) announced they’ll begin using drones to monitor hunters. And, there are any number of individuals and hobbyists who enjoy using (and abusing) drones for their personal enjoyment.

So, what’s your opinion on drones? Technological marvel or sinister tool of Big Brother? Vote in this week’s poll!

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